Nina Segal on DANGER SIGNALS by Declan Maloney Drummond

photo of Nina Segal-w10.jpg

What is DANGER SIGNALS about?

Danger Signals is a work about dysfunction – and about who makes the rules, of what is functional and what is not.  It is a show about the brain.  It’s also about ice, and ambition, and the patriarchy, and subjectivity.  And about two female chimpanzees, named Becky and Lucy.

How did you get involved in the project?

Sanaz, the director, and I were introduced in 2015 by Rachel Chavkin, who Sanaz had previously worked with.  Built for Collapse, Sanaz’s company, had been developing a project around the idea of neurological trauma, the historical development of the lobotomy, and Walter Freeman’s role in radically popularising the procedure in the US.  However, since they first began working on the project, Sanaz had, unfortunately, been involved in a car accident and, as she began the process of re-building and re-forming her own neurological pathways, she began to approach the project in a different way.  Built for Collapse are generally a devising company and rarely have worked with a writer before – but they approached me to in 2016 to ask about collaborating.  The first research I did into the subject was reading a book called The Lobotomist, by Jack El-Hai, which Sanaz had recommended.  The book focused on Walter Freeman and, although I was very drawn to certain questions or provocations raised by the text and the subject matter (who decides what is ‘normal’, who decides what is ‘functional), I struggled with the character of Freeman.  The flawed genius, undone by his own ambition.  The powerful, fallible man, leaving a wake of destruction behind him, as he follows his own path towards glory.  This was a kind of man I recognised – but not one that I felt comfortable placing on any kind of narrative pedestal.  But this tension – between wanting a tell a history, but not wanting to allow or make space for a particular kind of maleness that has ruthlessly imprinted itself over much of contemporary history – would end up proving central to our ideas’ development, over the following two years.  How do you tell a story that sees you, or people like you, as a side-note, not a protagonist?  As a problem to be solved?  What form can a play take, if you stop trying to make it ‘functional?’  Can we find another way to tell stories.

You're establishing yourself as a playwright on both sides of the Atlantic. How has that come about?

I’m originally from London, but lived in New York for about five years, from 2011, before returning to London last year.  Most of my work has been in London - my first production In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises), was produced by the Gate Theatre, and my second production, Big Guns, took place at the Yard – but I still spend time in New York when I can and would hope to have US productions of my texts, at some point.  Fingers crossed!

What’s next for you?

I’ve just landed back in London to prepare for a sharing of a new work, called There Is No Threat, at the Yard Theatre this week.  The work is a solo piece, with the brilliant performer Jess Latowicki, about the false missile alert in Hawaii this past January and about what it means to make work about real events – and what we mean when we say ‘real events’.

Nick Benacerraf on SEAGULLMACHINE by Declan Maloney Drummond

 Photo by Kent Meister

Photo by Kent Meister

What is SEAGULLMACHINE about and how does it fit into the work The Assembly does?

SEAGULLMACHINE is big, multidimensional investigation into what it means to “take action” – politically, theatrically, personally. These questions have been central to The Assembly’s work since 2009, but SEAGULLMACHINE marks a new approach. For starters, this project combines two of history’s most incredible texts – Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine – both interpretations of the Hamlet story, and both about the role of theater in times of social madness. Can the stage be a place of political transformation, or is it merely a site of comfort and distraction? We are building on our previous shows – two in particular: Three Sisters (by Chekhov) and HOME/SICK (devised collectively) – in terms of how we are inviting our audiences to be a part of a thriving live event where the questions of taking action feel physical and palpable. The goal of our work is always to harness our community in deep conversation, and SEAGULLMACHINE seems to have no problem doing that. (Because Chekhov is damn good and Müller is damn crazy.)

We like to think that our show offers something for everyone. I am in love with our 13-person cast, who brings you on a journey through theater history where we perform (most of) both scripts, including a brand-new translation of The Seagull that we made collectively. Ultimately, in performing this play every night we are trying to answer for ourselves: why do theater at all? It’s an appropriately existential question for us in this absurd political climate, and the audience is invited to form their own opinions about the value of this peculiar human tradition. Indeed, it’s been exciting to learn who among our audiences identify as Seagull people, and which as Hamletmachine people.

The concept began as a response to an assignment for my scenic design class at CalArts in 2010, and marks my first time co-directing an Assembly project, alongside the inimitable Jess Chayes. Our design team has taken over La MaMa’s incredible Ellen Stewart Theatre and rearranged it into a one-of-a-kind configuration, like you’ve never seen before. The question of “action” and “distraction” are made concrete by how the actors engage the “onstage” and “backstage” worlds.

What was the rehearsal process like?

The best word for it is “dreamy.” Not only has it been wonderfully harmonious to share the leadership with Jess – we find consensus on every single decision – but it became immediately clear that we are working with the most incredible group of artists in our company’s history. Last fall we had the privilege (thanks to a space grant from LMCC) of spending two months on the show. We dove headfirst into Chekhov’s endlessly nuanced and enthralling text, and staged major (collectively driven) attempts to make sense of Hamletmachine, a notoriously difficult play to mount. Our design team was regularly in the rehearsal room during that phase, experimenting with how we can use form and material to tell this story, and transition between two distinct theatrical worlds. Over the winter we had dozens of meetings with our design team, taking the fruits of the workshop and putting together a nearly final script. That way, we were off to the races when we returned to the final 4 weeks of the rehearsal process in March, where we could test our theories with specificity and go back to the drawing board as needed (because, I will remind you, Müller is damn crazy).

All this work, it’s important to note, rests on the shoulders of many other artists, who were part of our workshops from 2014 onward. We staged parts of each play at the undergroundzero festival, at the Williams College Summer Theatre Lab, at TDF’s Performeteria, and in top secret dramaturgical workshops. As Jess likes to say, the resulting work is the only play that this group of people could have created.

What's next for you?

Next, I continue my secret other life as a PhD student. (Finals!) And of course, I return to my work as a freelance set designer, which I love. But I am also starting to direct and devise a new play about delightful and manipulative techniques of TV advertising. That’ll take a couple years to complete, and I will probably produce it outside of The Assembly, because we have a whole slate of amazing work coming down the pipeline. Next up for the company is a brand-new musical, written by The Assembly’s Ben Beckley and composed by Nate Weida. It’s inspired by Kafka’s The Castle and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, set in an absurdist office space. We’re really excited.

SEAGULLMACHINE runs from April 14 - May 5 (opens April 16) at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th St.) in NYC.

Rodrigo Nogueira on 'The Ideal Obituary' and Starting Over in America. by Declan Maloney Drummond

 Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

What is ‘The Ideal Obituary’ about, and what inspired you to write this darkly comedic story? 

It’s about a man who tries to shake his wife out of her depressive numbness taking her to funerals. So they can be a loving couple again.

If I’m being honest, at first, what inspired me was my obsession with being the best, being perfect, being loved by everyone (I think I only admitted this before to my therapist. LOL). That’s what actually moves the husband. Of course, he loves her, but ultimately he needs this love to be materialized in the idea of a perfect family, a perfect home, the American Way which basically influenced Western society.

And that’s when I realized the play should be political. Till what point this conservatism that formed us isn’t the cause of our desensitization to problems around us such as racism, violence and poverty? So I decided to address these aspects through this couple’s life.

You accomplished so much in Brazil before moving here and starting fresh in the industry. Do you find that presenting your work to an American audience has been a very different experience? What are the main differences you find? 

I grew up watching American television and films in Brazil. So, even though I wrote in Portuguese, I believed my dialogues were very similar in form to American writing. I also lived in Bethesda, MD for two years when I was a child. And that was a very special part of my childhood. So, presenting my work to an American audience is something I always wanted to do.

But it was petrifying. Because even though I spoke the language, that didn’t mean I understood American culture. And that didn’t mean I could write plays in English! Now, I’m beginning to think that I actually can. 

But starting fresh is extremely hard. Not just because of the downsizing of the productions, I don’t mind that at all. But because no one knows about you and honestly no one cares if you’ve written movies for Disney and Universal in Brazil or if you directed a musical for 50,000 people in a rock festival in Lisbon. So you feel like your accomplishments were taken away from you. But it’s part of the game and I’m here to play it.

 Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

Do you usually direct your own pieces?

It’s something that I like to do. But it’s definitely not a rule for me. I don’t think I’m a great director even though I really like to direct. I think some plays that I write are better off with me directing them. Others, really need a different director.

I’m so curious about your use of disturbing and abrasive media clips throughout the piece. What did they represent for you as a part of the story? 

I wanted to remind the audience of the outside world. And maybe lead them to think that the couple in the play is not crazy or sick. They are a result of the same world we live in. A world that is constantly bombarding us with so many advertisements, music videos, news reports, reality shows, social media, talk shows, sex videos (and the list goes on and on and on) that maybe we just lost perspective and reality just went bzerk to a point that the a political leader suggests that teachers should use guns in schools. (I’m sorry, I just can’t believe that actually happened).

What do you hope for the audience to take away from this piece? 

I think I gave that away in my last answer. But I have a theory about what an audience takes away from a piece. I think Richard Foreman once said (I may be terribly wrong that it was him who said this) that theater doesn’t need costumes, lights, actors. Theater doesn’t even need an audience. Just bodies passing thorough a stage. And that is enough to change the energy in the universe. Now, I wouldn’t go that far I love working with actors and I’m a huge fan of  having an audience! I guess what I’m saying is that no matter what effect a play has on someone it changed something in them. Even if they just got really pissed because they saw something they hated. That’s theater!

What’s next for you?

I’m writing two romantic comedies for Brazil. One of them is set in Israel so I got to go there to do research a few months ago, and it was really exciting. In the US, I just finished a film script called “I love my cancer”, it’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a long time: a gay man in his 30’s feels like something is missing in his life. He finds out he has stomach cancer and instead of killing the tumor, he decides to love it as if it’s his own child. As the tumor grows in his stomach, he believes he’s pregnant.

I’m also writing a junior musical with Gershwin Songs for Tams Witmark. And my next play is called “Real”, where I tell two stories that overlap on stage: an american woman who doesn’t want to have children and a gay immigrant who never found love. They both feel lonely and left out. All the actors in her story play different roles in his. As the play progresses the audience finds out similarities in their stories to the point that they might just be the same person.

'The Ideal Obituary' is at The Tank till March 24th.


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Tiffany Antone on Protest Plays Project by Declan Maloney Drummond


What is the mission of Protest Plays Project?

The Protest Plays Project mission is to cultivate connectivity between theatre artists, organizers, and audiences in the hopes of fostering civic action.

What inspired you to initiate it?

I started PPP after the 2016 election.  An assault on civil liberties was already a hallmark of Trump's agenda, so seeing him get voted in was really motivating for me.  I wanted to do something theatrical that would actually contribute to the movements rising up against what many of us see as gross abuse of our most vulnerable communities.  I decided I would create the PPP site in order to connect playwrights creating socially conscious plays with Resistors.  Our initial response was positive, but I realized it wasn't enough to simply aggregate plays, so I shifted away from being a "collecting" point and took on more of an organizational role.  PPP has two main projects we're working on right now: The #TheatreActionGunControl support event and our Heal the Divide/Heal the Divide on Campus initiative.  

With #TheatreActionGunControl, we are asking theatres across the nation to open their spaces to #Enough and #MarchForOurLives organizers, and/or to create opportunities for theatrical actions during the month of March.  These can be play readings, music events, spoken word... The means are multitudinous—it's the focus (supporting this months civic actions for Gun Reform/Gun Control) that matters.  

in addition to initiating this call to action, we're offering access to over 200 plays written in response to gun violence.  Over 40 playwrights sent us the New Play Exchange links to their plays.  Caridad Svich and NoPassport reached out with their 24 Gun Control Plays and AFTER ORLANDO collections.  Claudia Alick sent us the Every 28 Hours Plays.  Playwright Rachael Carnes put out a call for playwrights to write about specific school shootings and has already amassed a collection of 21 brand new short plays and monologues on this tragic subject.  There's so much material available to support theatrical action, we hope theatres join us in putting these plays to work!

What are your hopes for the future of the Project?

I definitely hope that more theatres and theatre-makers connect with us so that we can continue to refine our approach and become more and more useful in addressing social issues through theatrical actions.  I hope that #TheatreActionGunControl helps theatres dialogue with their audiences and communities about gun violence and explore the role we all can play in curbing that violence.  I'd really like to see theatres incorporate more socially active work in their seasons, be it through productions, workshops, or readings.  I think there is room for theatres to do more to educate as well as entertain their audiences.  Theatre evokes empathy in a way that can open both hearst and minds, which makes it an important resource.  I'd love for PPP to continue to find ways to help theatres be more socially engaged.

What else are you working on?

I started an online residency for socially engaged playwrights last summer (called Heal the Divide), and it has blossomed into a multi-campus/intercollegiate project called Heal the Divide on Campus Initiatives above.  Last semester, students at six different colleges/universities wrote plays inspired by social issues of concern in their communities.  This semester, each of the six schools will read plays from every campus in an effort to explore different cultures/perspectives and create opportunities for constructive dialogue.  I'll be presenting a panel on this project at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference this summer along with Iowa State University's Charissa Menefee, and University of Texas-Arlington's Detra Payne.  

Since I also run Little Black Dress INK, I continue to work on our Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Fest and as a playwright, I'm just over here also trying to find time to finish rewrites on two plays while getting started on a new one.

Gracie Gardner on ATHENA by Declan Maloney Drummond

 Photo by Peter Falls

Photo by Peter Falls


Athena is about two very different teenage girls forming a shaky friendship as they practice together for Nationals. What drew you to this story?

Back in high school, I became close friends with a classmate because we were both the slowest runners on the cross country team. It was this feeling of: "We're next to each other, should we be talking?" That dynamic was something I was constantly negotiating as a shy teenager -- if I initiate a conversation, am I foisting an unfair burden on this person? Or am I being rude if I don't speak at all? In this play, Mary Wallace and Athena are constantly wrestling with those questions on a larger scale, but they are fencing directly across from each other, engaging in this form of socially sanctioned violence against one another. I used to fence as well, and I was drawn to the idea that you could see the actual sport play out on stage -- not a simulation of the sport or a theatrical gesture to indicate it, but actual, real time game play. My hope was to use that idea to explore the lengths to which someone would go to maintain a connection when they feel alienated. 

At the heart, what do you feel that Athena is really about?

My friend Tanya Everett (who is one of my favorite playwrights) saw the play and said something that felt right to me: "We want to love and be understood and we fail so often, not because we are bad people but because we lack tools."

How was Athena developed into production at JACK?

I started writing this play years ago, but it wasn't until recently that Emma and Julia (the amazing women who run the Hearth) officially commissioned it, and I started digging into it with a production in mind. The turnaround from commission to opening was November to February, which is quite fast. During the development process I was on the west coast, and Emma and Julia were in New York, and we were all working sixty hour a week day jobs, so it was challenging. They recorded actors reading the play and sent it to me, which allowed me to do revisions. 

 Photo by Mike Edmonds

Photo by Mike Edmonds

How involved were you in the casting/rehearsal process? Do you usually try to have a hand in that process for your pieces?

Being in the room for casting and rehearsals is essential for me in the initial production of a show. I just don't know what the play is until it's on its feet, and huge changes can happen in that time. For me, it's important to be open to the possibility of change, even if none occurs. In this case, an enormous rewrite happened in between casting and first rehearsal. The play changed a ton, not only because I had been working on it for so long, but also because having the complexity and intelligence of actors in the space makes you reconsider your preconceptions. 

The New York Times review of Athena said that it only wished more stories of “the awful, wonderful, completely ordinary business of growing up in a woman’s body” had been told sooner. What stories do you think deserve more attention in theatre?

I've been interested in creating theater that upends the sports genre for a while now. I came up with the idea for Athena when I was in high school, when I was actively fencing, but reading plays like Never Swim Alone in college expanded my sense of how gesture could be used to examine a character's interior life. Back when I was in school, I created a play called Manning Manning Manning about Peyton, Eli, and their often overlooked brother Cooper Manning, which examined my complicated relationship with football. Once I moved to New York, I was sending out that play and an earlier version of Athena to theaters and development opportunities. No one I submitted to was interested in either of these back in 2013, and I got buried in rejections. 

A year ago, I wrote a piece called Ballgirl, which is about a teenage girl who works on the sidelines of the US Open catching stray balls as they bounce off the court. That play was also directed by Emma Miller who directed Athena and went up at the Queens Theater this summer.

I'm happy to see that some theaters are changing their minds about who can write what kind of stories. That, for me, is what I'd like to see more of on our stages: adventurous writers asking difficult questions, bringing surprising characters to life, and theaters having the creative vision to cast their expectations aside.

What’s next for you?

I'm writing a play called Los Angeles which is an adaptation of Dante's Inferno.


ATHENA is currently playing at JACK, and performances have just been extended through to March 24th. 


 "Manning Manning Manning" Photo by Ally Schn

"Manning Manning Manning"
Photo by Ally Schn